What Will It Take To No Longer Tolerate the Intolerable?

I am writing this article as we prepare Volume 25 of Z Magazine. I’ve co-edited and co-produced every single issue: that’s 12 issues a year. That means each month, since 1988 I read some 50 submitted articles in order to publish around 20 of them in a 48-page print magazine (although it started out at 112 pages, then was reduced, for financial reasons, to 96, then 64).


Before that, in my ten years at South End Press (1977-1987), I read hundreds of manuscripts in the process of publishing six to ten books a year. Between South End and Z, that means reading  about a lot of crimes of injustice against humanity and the planet, crimes so horrible, they should not have been tolerated. Of course, my generation knows something about tolerating horror. We grew up looking at pictures of the Holocaust, as wells as the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagazaki—among other atrocities.


Speaking of tolerating: on October 12, 2011, the Boston Globe reported that: “police arrested 141 Occupy Boston protesters. City officials defended the crackdown as necessary to preserve public order against a restive grassroots movement. Mayor Thomas M. Menino, who has expressed sympathy for the movement’s goals of highlighting economic struggles of the middle-class, flatly stated yesterday that civil disobedience will not be tolerated.”


Really? This is what the mayor of Boston can’t tolerate? To be fair, he soon changed his tune and let the Occupiers stay until a court order forced them to vacate in mid-December. Perhaps someone pointed out to Menino that Boston (and Massachusetts) was no stranger to civil disobedience, not to mention revolution. Boston does a booming tourist business with its Freedom Trail where people can learn about the Boston Tea Party, the Battle of Lexington and Concord, the Battle of Bunker Hill, and Paul Revere’s famous midnight ride.


Menino’s advisors might also have mentioned (although I doubt it) Concord, Massachusetts native Henry David Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” (1849), which in the 1940s was read by the Danish resistance, in the 1950s was cherished by those who opposed McCarthyism, in the 1960s was influential in the struggle against South African apartheid, and in the 1970s was discovered by a new generation of anti-war activists.


Perhaps Menino was told about the civil disobedience in the Boston area during the Vietnam War, a war that hundreds of thousands decided they could no longer tolerate. I was one of them. I remember sitting on the floor of a room somewhere and watching a video documenting the U.S. use of weapons in Vietnam with the express purpose of maiming the population. This was only part of the information revealed by the Pentagon Papers and other sources that exposed the venal and imperialist mission of that war.


I wonder if Menino knowa about the 1970 civil disobedience at Boston’s federal building when 5,000 people blocked the doors from 7:00 AM to 3:00 PM (I was a co-organizer).


What Will It Take?


When I first started work at South End Press, the spirit of the 1960’s protest movements was still in the air. There was an active anti-nuke movement demonstrating and occupying power plants. The women’s and gay and lesbian movements were still alive and active. Later, there was a vibrant movement in support of Central America in its struggles against U.S. machinations there. So, painful as it was to read all those articles and manuscripts, I was able to tolerate the intolerable because, through publishing the information, I felt I was providing information to activists still engaged in the struggle and hopefully influencing others not yet involved to join the fight for peace and justice. But as the years went by, the quantity and outrageousness of what couldn’t and shouldn’t be tolerated increased and the publishing mission had to become one of keeping the politics alive, focusing more on reimagining society, and hoping for some event or catalyst to break through the reactionary politics that seems to dominate the mainstream. 


Each month, when we start preparing the next issue and I read about things like: “The first evidence of the Special Police commandos’ dirty war in Baghdad was the discovery of 14 bodies in a shallow grave in the Kasra- Watash industrial district. The bodies bore classic signs of torture, including broken skulls, other broken bones, and burns. Many had their right eyeballs removed. They were identified as 14 farmers who had been arrested at a vegetable market on May 5. They were from Maidan where occupation forces had recently met armed resistance…this was the price they should expect to pay for resisting the occupation.


“In successive weeks, months, and years, tens of thousands of men and boys in Baghdad met similar fates, leading ultimately to the ethnic cleansing of the city. The tide of deaths would peak in 2006 with more than 1,600 bodies of extra-judicial execution victims delivered to morgues each month between July and October, under cover of the U.S. Operations Together Forward I and II” (from Nicolas Davies’ article in this issue).


After proofing the Davies article, it’s difficult to listen to a six o’clock national news report detailing the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq after “helping restore that  country to democracy” without throwing things  at the TV.


Then I proofread a Laurence Shoup article for this issue in which he writes: ”In the U.S., the wealth and income statistics are truly shocking, illustrating both the gross injustice of the situation and that the entire social and political order is declining. The top 1 percent of U.S. wealth-holders…currently hold about 35 percent of the total wealth of the nation (43 percent of the financial wealth), and the top 20 percent have 85 percent of the total wealth. Conversely, the bottom 80 percent of the population owns only 15 percent of the wealth, the bottom 40 percent of the population owns only 0.3 percent of the nation’s wealth (basically nothing), and about one in six Americans (almost 50 million people) live in poverty, with no wealth and lacking even a minimal income. The 2010 census recorded the widest gap between rich and poor ever recorded in U.S. history” (from “America’s Power Couple” in this issue).


You can imagine after that how difficult it is to listen to the Republican presidential debates.


There have been moments through the years of publishing Z, when something seemed to be happening:, the global anti-capitalist movement, the worldwide protests against a U.S. invasion/occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, protests in Wisconsin, and the social forums which asserted that “Another World Was Possible”—to name a few. There’s been lots of activism and we’ve tried to publish as many articles in the magazine and on our website as have been submitted to us. We’ve covered every attempt we could find on alternatives, on worker occupied factories, on participatory society and participatory economic/politics. We started a nine day school to teach radical theory and how to organize a democratic workplace. We exposed the machinations of institutions—political and economic.


Each month as we decide what articles to publish, we wonder how much more people can tolerate. Besides the wars and economic crises, there’s the creeping commercialism turning every thing into an advertisement and every one into a shill for some corporation or other. Particularly, upsetting is when they mess with those glorious Motown songs that we all used to dance to after marching from Boston Common to Harvard Square to take over some building or other. Now they're using them to sell stuff. You can’t even mention a subway stop or a sports arena  without advertising a corporation or a bank .


Last week our local newscasters reported on how the winner of the “X-Factor” was going to win millions of dollars but, they said with great excitement, better still was that the winner would get to sing the Pepsi commercial at the Super Bowl halftime show. Seriously?


Until Now


There were so many years where it seemed there would be no end to this mass shutting up. Until now. The global uprisings and the subsequent Occupy Wall Street movement have given many people new hope and created a mindset in which people seem to feel free to no longer tolerate the intolerable.


Hopefully, the actions going on all around us will grow and diversify with activists taking over more and more spaces and democratically trying to function as a more humane version/vision of society, as they did at Zuc- cotti Park—with general assemblies, committees, a library, food production, sanitation, and so on.


A current email from a not particularly radical sight highlights the fact that versions of the Occupy slogan are catching on, even in the mainstream: “We Are the 99.99 percent”: “The one percent of the one percent would only fill up two-thirds of the seats at the Nationals Park, but they contributed 24.3 percent of the total campaign donations from individuals to politicians, parties, PACs, and independent expenditure groups in the 2010 election cycle. According to a new study by the Sunlight Foundation, these 26,783 individuals—71 percent of which are executives, lawyers, or lobbyists—contributed $774 million to federal political campaigns in 2010. That’s $28,913 each—more than the median individual income in America by $2,549. This data makes the arguments raised by the Occupy movement all the more compelling. The one percent not only hold the reins on our economy, a small fraction of them have immense power over the political process.”


I hope the Occupy movement continues stirring things up, raising the social cost for elites, keeping it militant, but also good natured, with lots of respect and affection among those involved.


We put the quote from Chomsky on the cover, lest you waiver. When needed, it has kept me fired up. Perhaps it will inspire you. Here it is again:


“Any good capitalist democracy needs to keep the rabble in line. To make sure
that they are atoms of consumption, obedient tools of production, isolated
from one another, lacking any concept of a decent human life. They are to be
spectators in a political system run by elites, blaming each other and themselves
for what’s wrong.”


We are not rabble, we won’t be kept in line, let’s Occupy the new year, whatever that means, and move on from there. 


Lydia Sargent is co-founder of South End Press and Z Magazine, where she has been a staff member since 1988.